Fur trappers and mountain men of European origin explored the isolated Verde Valley in the early 1800s, depleting the beaver population by the 1830s. It wasn’t until 1862, however, that the region truly changed forever. The U.S. Congress, concerned about sparse settlement in the west, passed the Homestead Act, giving 160-acre tracts of public land to citizens who would settle the land and use it productively.
In 1863, gold was discovered near the small town of Prescott, a growing center in the region. A year later, with the creation of the Arizona Territory, the town was designated its capital. The Civil War was finally over in the east, and the rush was on. Thousands of homesteaders and miners arrived from throughout the nation and the world. The miners sought riches or good-paying work, prospecting near Prescott or heading to the mines of Jerome. The settlers hungered for rich land along the river valleys.
In 1865 pioneers began pushing into the Verde Valley, where they generally became farmers and cattle ranchers. The soil was good, the grass was lush and the waters dependable, but it wasn’t easy. A young settler, Charles Stemmer, described the area in the early 1870s: “Many were sick with malaria. Many small lagoons all along the Verde furnished breeding places for mosquitos that sometimes clouded parts of the valley.”
Cattle by the thousands were introduced to the region in 1875. By the 1880’s overstocking occurred, with approximately 40,000 in the Valley. During the drought of 1894-95 most cattle died or were shipped out by rail, and the cattle boom was over. Overgrazing, however, had caused increased runoff and erosion.
The most challenging reality for the settlers was that this land had, for centuries, been home to native cultures. It was not going to be easily relinquished. Tribal raids of cattle, horses, orchards and fields became more frequent, until the settlers appealed for military protection and got it. The government created Camp Lincoln (later Fort Verde) in the town of Camp Verde in 1865. Under General George Crook, the troops fought and eventually rounded up the native Yavapai and Apache peoples living in Oak Creek Canyon and surrounding areas. In February of 1875, 1500 people of all ages were force-marched under great hardship in winter conditions to the San Carlos Reservation, 180 miles away. More than 100 people died on the journey, many more in the camp. After 25 years, they were allowed to return, though much of their property had been lost. Fort Verde was manned until 1890.
In 1875, after the removal of the Native Peoples in the Oak Creek Canyon area, most arable lands were homesteaded along the creek, as it wound its way south and west through the red rocks. Pioneer families arriving during that period established the foundation of this community.
James J. Thompson became the first settler in Oak Creek Canyon, where he found crops planted by the recently expelled Apaches. He named the spot “Indian Gardens”; it remains a popular destination today. His friend, Abraham James, soon moved his family to the area, and became the first homesteader in the lower canyon. Thompson married James’ daughter, Maggie, and had nine children.
Legendary bear-hunter, Jesse “Bear” Howard, found haven from his checkered past in the hidden canyon. The following years brought the Purtymuns, the Loys, the Owenbys, the Jordans, the Schuermans, Juan and Marcelina Armijo, and the Manual Chavez Family. Sedona is named for Sedona Schnebly, the wife of the town’s first postmaster.
These early residents built the irrigation systems, planted the orchards, built the first cattle trails, a school, a cemetery, and, finally, the primitive roads needed to connect to the rest of the world, hauling their produce to far away markets in Flagstaff and Camp Verde. Many landmarks throughout the area bear their names and many of their children have remained in the area, continuing to make significant contributions to the community.